Cabernet is king in the Coonawarra. But those flavour-filled grapes have some serious competition from a number of varieties vying for a slice of the throne.
If you ask Coonawarra winemakers what the key is to their quality wines, they’ll say it’s what you’re standing on – the famous Terra Rossa. Take that rusty-coloured, free-draining top soil, sitting on an ancient limestone ridge, add a pure underground aquifer and a long, cool ripening season and you have the makings of a perfect wine-growing region.
Cabernet is king in the Coonawarra. There are more hectares planted to Cab Sav than any other grape and it’s the biggest selling wine in the region. But, as we discover, it all began with Shiraz and the “white pepper” version in this region holds its own, as does Riesling.
The historic home of Wynn’s Coonawarra Estate.
This special pocket of land, just 25km long and 2km wide lies in South Australia’s Limestone Coast, 350km from Adelaide.With 26 cellar doors dotted along the Riddoch Highway, it’s an easy region to visit with winery hopping a case of coming out of one driveway and turning into the next.
But I’m doing it in style on a tour with Simon and Kerry Meares at Coonawarra Experiences. The pair moved to the Coonawarra to fill a gap in the wine tourism market.
“We had visited many times but we wanted more,” Simon says. “We wanted to talk to winemakers and go behind the scenes and have special experiences and learn more. But no-one was offering tours. So we moved here and started Coonawarra Experiences.”
So where does a wine tour start?
“With a bit of history,” says Simon. “We can thank John Riddoch for the Coonawarra.”
Gold brought the pioneering Scotsman to Australia, but Riddoch found his own ‘gold’ in the terra rossa. From setting up a fruit colony to creating a wine region, Riddoch’s legacy was cemented when Chateau Comaum was built in 1891. Known as The Gables, it’s now Wynns Coonawarra Estate.
Our first tasting is at Rymill – established by Riddoch’s great-grandson, Peter Rymill. Winemaker Lewis White gives us the private tour experience – blending our own classic Cabernet in the lab and sampling straight from barrels.
“There’s a lot of movement into diversifying what the Coonawarra offers,” Lewis says. “It’s perfect for Cabernet but the cool climate is also well-suited to sparkling wines, Chardonnay and aromatic whites like Sauvignon Blanc and Gewürztraminer.”
The striking Rymill cellar door.
His prediction for the next big thing in wine might surprise you…canned wine.
“It’s much more environmentally friendly to produce in cans and it’s really good wine,” Lewis says. “I think it will be in the marketplace before Christmas. But you will still need a glass to drink it.”
Over a lunch of local lamb cutlets at at Margaret Bell’s Chardonnay Lodge, the conversation turns to Covid-19.
“Despite the pandemic, 2021 has been a good year,” Simon explains. “Visitation is down, but yields are good, grape quality is excellent and the atmosphere is positive.
“And the feeling all round,” he continues, “is that restrictions – like seated tastings – are a benefit. They give customers a much better experience.”
Speaking of which, our next stop is Zema Estate, which began in 1982, when Nick Zema’s family bought eight acres, a tin shed and half a house.
“After 40 vintages, we now have a winery and cellar door and a whole house,” Nick says, laughing.
Winemaker Joe Cory joined Zema in 2018, introducing new varieties to the once-exclusive Shiraz/Cabernet line-up. Our tasting is in the barrel room, flanked by cases of every Zema wine ever made. It starts with Sauvignon Blanc, Rosé and a surprise package – a sparkling Merlot. Then it’s on to the best-selling Cabernet and Shiraz.
Nick Zema tending his grapes; Luke Tocaciu of Patrick of Coonawarra.
At Patrick of Coonawarra, the focus has been on Cabernet and Riesling since the winery’s beginnings in 1998. Patrick Tocaciu was a much-loved local, as is his namesake winery, and when he died in 2013, son Luke took the reins, maintaining the focus, but also adding new styles – like the Methode range.
“The grapes for these wines are hand-picked, the wine is hand bottled, bottles are hand labelled and hand wax dipped to seal the deal,” Luke says.
There’s Skinny Riesling, fermented on skins to build texture; Cab Nouveau – a soft, lighter version of a typical Cab Sav, and the ‘unusual’ Eucalypt Cabernet Sauvignon.
“For the Eucalypt, we pick grapes growing within 50 metres of the gum trees and also take stems and bits and pieces to add a subtle menthol character,” Luke says. “It can be a hard sell, but once people taste it, they love it.”
The last stop for the day is at the Bellwether Wines cellar door. Originally a shearing shed, it was built in 1857 by Chinese migrants on their way to the Victorian goldfields. Sue Bell turned it into a winery in 2009. Now it showcases the old and the new – especially Sue’s Ant series, which focuses on special, small parcels of fruit from far and wide.
Everything old is new again here, so vintage tourists (like myself) feel right at home. And if you want to soak up more of the historic atmosphere, you can stay the night in a bell tent.
Italian style wine in the Coonawarra
Day two starts with a dose of Italian heritage and a bright Sparkling at DiGiorgio Family Wines. Also on the paddle – a Riesling and Rosé before building to Cab Franc, Shiraz and ever-dominating Cab Sav.
But DiGiorgio is all about what you do when drinking wine. You can make your own picnic platters, join a pasta-making class or
DiGiorgiotake a guided tour.
A visit to the pit is a must. This is where the terra rossa can be seen in all its burnt orange glory.
You haven’t really been to ‘the Coonawarra’ unless you go to Coonawarra. Three streets, a General Store, about 100 people and an old railway siding make up this tiny township.
The DiGiorgio cellar door.
The siding is surrounded by vineyards, some belonging to Brand’s Laira – our next stop. In 1950, Eric and Nancy Brand bought 24 hectares of land that had been planted with Shiraz grapes in 1893 by English sea captain, Henry Stentiford. It was called the Laira Vineyard in honour of Captain Stentiford’s favourite clipper ship, the Laira.
Though the property is no longer in the family’s hands, Brand’s Laira pays tribute to Eric, housing his private cellar – an old fruit drying shed – in the new cellar door. Surrounded by old bottles, coated in a layer of dust straight out of the 1800s, we enjoy lunch and wines ranging from a Germanic-style Riesling to that sumptuous Stentiford Shiraz.
While it cherishes its past, winemaker Amy Blackburn explains how Brand’s is embracing new technology. Cue the optical sorter, a magical piece of machinery that photographs fruit to select the perfect grapes.
Kerry and Simon Meares at Brand’s Laira; Coonawarra’s terra rossa soil on show at DiGiorgio’s pit.
Keeping the brand alive
Sam Brand, Eric’s grandson, is also keeping the family tradition alive with the original label, Brand & Sons. In 2005, when his father Jim died, Sam was drawn back into the wine industry as winemaker.
“I see myself more as a conductor of winemaking,” Sam says. “I know what I’m doing, but recognise there are many more people much more talented than I am at certain jobs. I’m just the bloke out the front of the orchestra pointing a big stick.”
Sam wants to tell a story with his wines. The Sanctuary is his best Cabernet produced each year while Jim Brand is a tribute to his dad and the Untold range tells the fabulous stories behind the wines. While there is no Brand & Sons winery, there are plans to build a cellar door. In the meantime, you can request a tasting through Coonawarra Experiences.
It would be a ‘Syn’ not to taste the Sparkling Chardonnay Pinot Noir, Shiraz and Rosé at Leconfield – the Coonawarra arm of Richard Hamilton Wines.
Winemakers Paul Gordon and Greg Foster have a tasting line-up that will satisfy almost any requests, from traditional Chardonnay, Shiraz and Cabernet to Riesling and softer Bordeaux-style blends of Cab Franc, Merlot and Cab Sav. And another Merlot…smooth, chocolatey and velvety.
Leconfield winemakers Paul Gordon and Greg Foster; Simon Brand of Brand & Sons.
Time for a whistle stop at the Whistle Post. Angus Smibert is the new kid on the block when it comes to winemaking, but the Smibert family has been growing grapes since 2007 when they bought the V&A Lane Vineyard. Why Whistle Post?
“Trains used to blow their whistle going over our property as a warning they were approaching the road crossing,” Angus says. “The Whistle Post can still be found along the tracks even though the railway isn’t used any more. The name is a nod to the big part the railway played in the development of the region’s wine industry.”
Whistle Post does not have a winery. Instead they focus on the grapes and give specs to winemakers for six varieties – two Cabernet Sauvignons, a Merlot, Cabernet Franc, Field Blend and a Pinot Noir Rosé. What they do have is a modern and spacious cellar door and function centre that’s open late – ideal for pre-dinner drinks or a glass among the vines at any time.
Last but definitely not least is Raidis Estate run by Steven and Emma Raidis. With names like The Kid Riesling and Wild Goat Shiraz, it’s impossible to ignore the goat connection.
“We run goats among the vines, after picking,” Emma says. “They clean up excess grapes, reduce disease pressure and get rid of weeds. It’s part of our viticulture process so we use no pesticides, are vegan friendly and meet most of the requirements for organic production…minus the certification.”
It’s a family business, so you can’t forget mum Fran and dad Chris, who are always on hand to manage the vines, show off new-born kids (the goat kind) or make a stiff Greek coffee.
Out back is the huge shed where they hold regular events like Pizza & Tunes or any function you can imagine. Sitting by a fire, sipping a glass of Cheeky Goat Pinot Gris (their best seller) is a great way to end this wine tour…I ‘kid’ you not!
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